First Person

Sahel food crisis: A little bit of grain and a lot of worry

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Women digging through anthills for bits of grain to feed their children is one of the most stark images of hunger in the Sahel region of West Africa, where a food crisis is affecting more than 18 million people. The grain—if women find any stashed there by ants—is hardly enough to satisfy a family. And unearthing it is only one of the laborious steps this coping strategy demands.

Adoaga Ousmane searches for bits of grain stored by ants. It's just the first step in an arduous process of finding and preparing food. Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith

Here, in the words of Adoaga Ousmane, a  widow caring for her own children as well as several grandchildren, is what many women in the Guéra region of Chad are enduring. Thin and light-headed with hunger, Ousmane can spend five hours in a round-trip walk to the anthills when she can find no other source of food:

“The walk to the anthills is far away and the sun beats down. It is like walking to hell. It is very hot, dusty work. If you see me do it, you would not recognize me because I would be covered in sweat and dust and ants which crawl on me and bite me.

“When I dig the anthills, I search for grains of wild grass that the ants have collected and stored away. I sieve through the anthill to see if I can find them and if I do, I collect up the grains and take them home. It takes a long time to prepare the grains. I have to sieve what I’ve collected many times to remove as much of the dust and dirt as possible. Then I boil what’s left in a pot for a long time until the dirt goes to the bottom and the grains are left floating on top. I then sieve off the grains and dry them. Then I crush them to make flour which I can then use when I prepare a meal.

“Sometimes when I dig an anthill, I find two or three coros of grains [a coro is the local unit of measure equally roughly one tin full] but sometimes I find nothing. It takes many hours of searching and sieving the dirt in the hopes of finding a few grains.”

Returning  empty handed would pain any mother  with hungry children at home, and for Ousmone, the worry is with her constantly.

“I think a lot…about my family – what will they eat, what will I find for them, will I be able to feed them today. I make calculations for tomorrow. I always think about how I’m going to find food for my children, wishing that my husband was still alive to help me provide for the children, because I don’t really have anyone I can turn to for help. If my friends have nothing to give me, we won’t eat anything.”

Recently, Ousmane and her family were selected for inclusion in an Oxfam distribution of food provided by the World Food Programme—an initiative that will help more than 61,000 people in Guéra. It’s slated to last until September. And for the moment, at least, Ousmane has found a little peace of mind.

Oxfam is aiming to help 1.2 million people across seven countries with programs that include cash transfers and cash-for-work initiatives, veterinary care for the livestock on which many families depend, and access to clean water and sanitation. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can support our efforts. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+